February 8, 2023

China curbs ‘Zero Covid’ protests, relaxes some pandemic measures

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Small protests broke out in several cities on Monday evening against China’s strict “zero Covid” policy, as citizens defied police crackdowns and threats of retaliation, which Beijing blamed on “foreign forces”, as authorities moved to vaccinate more elderly people and ease some distancing measures.

From Hangzhou in the east to Kunming in the southwest and Beijing in the north, groups of people demonstrated holding up blank paper – a A symbol of state censorship – In solidarity with protesters in Shanghai, the first major city where recent rallies have taken place against zero-covid measures.

The protests were primarily vehicles to express about the lockdowns and to remind people Died in the fire In the northwestern part of Xinjiang last week. Many Chinese believe the zero-covid policy worsened the tragedy by slowing down first responders, which officials deny. Frustration about political repression has also crept in, with some calling for the overthrow of the ruling Communist Party. President Xi Jinping.

Monday evening’s demonstrations were relatively small, involving perhaps dozens of protesters. Rallies against alleged local government abuses are not an uncommon sight in China — but long-running, nationwide protests against central authorities are far more unusual. Despite attempts by censors to cut off access, videos of these moments circulated widely online.

Local security officials, who appeared unarmed when demonstrations began over the weekend, appeared more proactive in trying to quell Monday’s protests. In Hangzhou, home to tech giants including Alibaba, a widely circulated video showed police cornering a bespectacled teenager and trying to take from him a bouquet of chrysanthemums, a symbol of mourning.

“Couldn’t I bring some flowers to West Lake?” the man asked officials, pointing to a popular spot where some had gathered to demand the lifting of strict coronavirus measures. Security forces tried to forcibly take the man away but were stopped by onlookers. The man was eventually released.

Another clip showed police forcefully taking away a woman in front of an upscale shopping mall in Hangzhou. As she screamed for help, probably dozens of people gathered, some shouting “let her go”. Citing social-distancing protocols, authorities ordered the gathering to be disbanded.

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The Washington Post could not immediately independently verify the authenticity of the two clips. But a subway station near West Lake was closed Monday evening, said a resident of Niue, who spoke on condition that he use only his last name, fearing government retaliation.

Police have stepped up patrolling around the lake and conducted identity checks on people in the area. “There were a lot of police cars parked around the lake,” he said. “I worry about the people who were taken away; They were bold enough to speak their minds and did no wrong.

In a possible sign that China may eventually relax its zero-covid policy, which includes long lockdowns, routine mass testing and close contact of coronavirus patients in centralized isolation facilities, some local governments began easing restrictions this week.

Public transport in Urumqi, the Xinjiang capital where the deadly fire broke out, partially resumed on Monday, while delivery services resumed on Tuesday. A district in the economic hub of Guangzhou, which has recently seen a spike in Covid infections, announced on Monday that it would exempt seniors, students and those who worked from home from mass testing unless they needed to enter public spaces.

In Beijing, officials pledged not to lock down residential buildings for more than 24 hours at a time. The southwestern city of Chengdu has halted construction of a large facility to house more than 10,000 people, a sign that mass centralized quarantine may be on its way.

Beijing’s anti-coronavirus policies It has kept the country’s death rate low by international standards, but medical experts are increasingly questioning the sustainability of such measures amid the spread of widespread versions of the omicron variant. China said on Tuesday it had recorded more than 38,500 infections in the past day – a very high number by the country’s standards.

China said last month it would ease the burden of Covid-19 measures on daily life, but central authorities have not provided a road map, and local authorities are expected to quickly contain the still-spreading cases.

Beijing’s potential Let go of restrictions with meaning It is hampered by low vaccination rates among the elderly and its limited emergency care capabilities. Two-thirds of Chinese citizens over the age of 80 have received two doses of the vaccine, and only 40 percent of that age group have received a booster shot.

National health officials said on Tuesday they would focus on encouraging the Chinese elderly, with priority given to those over 80. Although vaccine reluctance is high among the elderly, Beijing has yet to announce a mandate, which global health experts see as a major step toward abandoning stricter restrictions.

According to a report from the National Health Commission on Tuesday, local governments should use advanced data analytics to identify older adults who should be immunized and get concrete reasons for their refusal if they refuse.

“Leadership in response to protests … has little chance of a zero-Covid end because of the precedent it sets, and if efforts to contain the virus stop now, the health system will quickly sink,” wrote Mark Williams. in a Monday research note, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics, a consultancy.

Smaller concessions, such as changing quarantine rules, are possible, he said.

“We are always investigating and remediating to protect people’s interests as much as possible and minimize harm [of zero covid] in China’s economic and social development,” National Health Commission spokesman Mi Feng told a news conference on Tuesday.

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Recent small signs of a possible compromise have coincided with large-scale censorship and fears that tougher controls are on the way. There was some online chatter about the protests over the weekend, but the week began with censors banning accounts and scrubbing posts, video clips and hashtags from major social media platforms. The phrase “blank paper” was censored, and students protested restrictions on speech by taking blank sheets of paper.

Beijing “will never allow a protest movement to occupy the streets of China. If the protests continue, a crackdown is very likely,” wrote Williams, the economist.

On Monday, Shanghai authorities set up barricades and deployed police at city intersections where protests have taken place. In Beijing on Monday evening, there was a heavy police presence near two sites where demonstrations took place over the weekend.

Nationalist commentators, without providing evidence, accused the protesters of colluding with hostile foreign powers.

“Whenever some tragedy occurs in China, [the West] will go all the way to fan the flames and incite the Chinese people to riot,” prominent nationalist commentator Ming Jinwei wrote in a Monday post, warning of a possible color revolution. The term refers to massive anti-regime protests such as Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, which many officials in Moscow and Beijing say were directed by the West.

“They examine the problems in Chinese society through a magnifying glass, and they turn every fire, every traffic accident into an attack,” he said.

Chinese officials have not directly acknowledged the protests, although Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a briefing on Monday that there was no need to worry about the safety of Chinese residents. Exiled human rights activists have stepped up their criticism of Beijing in recent days, accusing them of “ulterior motives”.

Asked whether China would consider ending the zero-Covid policy following widespread protests, Zhao said Beijing would fight the epidemic with “optimal” measures in line with existing policy and under the leadership of the Communist Party.